Sometimes on this trip, I do unacademic things, like go to Tokyo! Tokyo is one of my favorite places in the world. I was born in Tokyo, and as cheesy as it sounds, the movement of the city, with its complex subways and busy crosswalks, feels like it fits the beat of my own pulse.
Some of us on the program had the weekend free, so four of us took the bullet train (shinkansen) to our “Bright and Colorful” themed Airbnb to take our first break from school and classes since we’ve been in Japan.
I felt guilty leaving my homestay because I never want them to feel neglected or unappreciated. I would never want them to feel like I’d rather be somewhere else other than their home that they generously welcomed me into. It has been hard to balance my independent personality with trying to make my host family happy and feel truly like I want to be there all the time. But, the reality of it is sometimes I do want to leave Kyoto and explore.
It was hard to push that guilt aside and I worked up an hour of courage to tell them I was going to be gone for the weekend. Of course, they were excited for me and I could finally breathe again. Living with a host family has been wonderful, and I appreciate the challenge that comes with the host family experience.
Class was out around 6:30pm that day so we rushed to the subway that would take us to Kyoto station where our 7:32pm Shinkansen was waiting. It felt like our subway was taking forever, and all of a sudden it was 7:15 and we still weren’t at the Kyoto station. BUT, somehow we made it on the train with enough time to quickly get egg and shrimp sandwiches and seats next to one another.
We got to Tokyo late at night and got a little lost trying to find our hidden Airbnb, but we finally made it with a little energy to get dinner. First we found a McDonald’s to go to, and while it is embarrassing to be going to McDonald’s in foreign countries, I argue that it is a cultural experience in a lot of ways, and I always make the effort to go to a McDonald’s in every country I go to (so far, the Korean McDonalds was the best because of the Beef Bulgogi Burger, and interestingly enough there is no McDonalds in all of Mongolia- ponder that!). I ordered a teriyaki burger and fries and ate it quickly before their closing.
We walked around and found a little izakaya restaurant on a side street, definitely the perfect mom and pop “hole in the wall” we were searching for at 11pm. The family who owned it was so excited to see us, foreigners, and gave us a huge welcoming. They assumed no one in our group spoke Japanese, so they asked around if any of the customers spoke English to help translate the menu and our questions. Luckily, I spoke Japanese and I was able to translate for our group which surprised them, as it does with many Japanese people because I look ambiguous and I am white-passing.
We got our drinks and food and it was seriously some of the best fried chicken I have ever eaten! When we were eating and minding our own business, the owner asked us where we were from. After answering, “America,” the owner pointed at us and yelled “TRUMP!” We all tried to convey our negative feelings towards Trump, but it seemed like we couldn’t escape it. Traveling during Trump’s America has been a distinguishing experience thus far (definitely a future blog post topic). Still, the owner was so kind and charismatic and came to our table and gave us a “present” which tasted like fig newtons but looked like mochi.
Once we were stuffed, we asked for the check, and there was a “cover charge” which included our appetizer which we thought was free. Confused by the price and this hidden but non-hidden fee, we paid laughing at the miscommunication that comes with traveling in a new and old country. We learned that while you’re traveling you kind of just have to deal with it, whether it’s paying more for food than you expected or ordering a vegetarian meal that has a lot of beef in it. The end results in a lot of smiles and laughter.
The following day we explored my favorite neighborhood, Harajuku. While the area has become incredibly touristy, and the original “Harajuku” girls and Harajuku fashion is nowhere to be found, I still love going. They have amazing thrift stores with funky themes and clothes that forces me to practice self-control. On this trip, we are traveling with 65 L backpacking bags which means I can only fit a few outfits. Harajuku was torturous, and walking away from shirts with silly patterns made my heart cringe. I genuinely considered buying a suitcase to fit more clothes in, but I made the better and more responsible decision and parted with clothes that spark joy.
The next day we went to the Tokyo Fish Market for some amazing sushi in the rain. Typhoon Lan was slowly approaching, and we were being warned by our director to come home early. My three classmates left the next morning to make it back to Kyoto before the typhoon hit, but I had plans with my sister (rather, my non-biological exchange student sister, who my mom and I hosted when I was in Elementary school, and I have been lucky enough to have built a relationship with her where we have kept in contact and visited each other countless times) that I could not give up! She was visiting from Thailand with her husband and 3-year-old son who I had never met, and it happened to be the same month I was in Japan.
Seeing them was amazing, as always, but as the rain started picking up I got increasingly anxious of the typhoon and possible transportation complications on my way back. Part of me wanted to stay in Tokyo with them, because I didn’t want to risk going back, but I knew I would get into more trouble both from the typhoon and from my director.
I got on an extremely busy bullet train back to Kyoto, with people standing for an hour or so because there were not enough seats. Luckily, I found a seat and fell asleep immediately, but woke up to heavy rain in Kyoto and numerous canceled trains. My train back to my host family’s home was one of the only trains running but was extremely delayed. I had no idea what was going on and sat on this stopped train for 45 minutes wondering if it would ever move and if my host family hated me for making them stay up for my arrival. Finally, I made it back to my station, and my host dad was there to pick me up so I didn’t have to walk the 20 minutes home.
The sounds from the typhoon were incredibly loud from the rain and wind yet so soothing. While it was scary hearing these harsh sounds, wondering if something had blown off of a house or fallen, it was oddly comforting to be tucked away in a calm room with a cozy bed amidst the chaos outside. I was lucky to have this comfy and sturdy shelter, giving me a safe space that inherently brought more attention to how peaceful it was and how peaceful one could feel within the craziness the world has to offer. It reminded me that even when I feel like there is so much going on or too many loud thoughts, it is still possible to find a place to retreat.
Tokyo was so much fun, and it will always be a place I will find myself when I get the opportunity to go to Japan. I was so lucky that I had a few free days from classes and field trips so that I could go and recharge my battery through the eclectic and electric energy that one finds within Tokyo. It was a great way to spend the last weekend in Japan, and oddly enough, it was a great way to restart my brain to prepare for our finals that week. I am already starting to miss Japan.